Deontological ethics is an ethics system that judges whether an action is right or wrong based on a moral code. Consequences of those actions are not taken into consideration. This ethics system is intended to be precise and by the book. Doing the right thing means to follow proper rules of behavior and, by doing so, promoting fairness and equality.
Immanuel Kant, the ethics system’s celebrated proponent, formulated the most influential form of a secular deontological moral theory in 1788. Unlike religious deontological theories, the rules (or maxims) in Kant’s deontological theory derive from human reason. (Shakil, 2015)
Deontology works great in theory, but in the real world, it is challenging to comply with it. What happens when you have to choose between two evils? What happens when we can’t be objective? What happens when the situation is not black and white?
In the other hand, utilitarian ethics state that a course of action should be taken by considering the most positive outcome. This ethics system is more accurate when it comes to addressing complicated situations, which solutions are not as trivial.
Originally, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, defined utility as the aggregate pleasure after deducting suffering of all involved in any action. (Wikipedia, 2015). However, the downfall of this ethics system is not being justice-oriented.
To better understand deontology vs utilitarianism, let’s use an example that features a moral dilemma.
Peter is a father and his son is very sick. Peter took his son to the doctor and found out that his son needs a very expensive surgery. Peter doesn’t have enough time to earn the money needed for the surgery because his son is in a critical condition. Peter, not knowing what to do to save his son, decides to lie. Peter goes to a bank and asks for a personal loan intended to be for investing in a new business that would generate a lot of revenue. Peter gets the money, goes to the hospital, pays for the surgery and saves his son’s life.
According to Kant, Peter shouldn’t have lied. According to Bentham, Peter did the right thing because, at the end, he saved a life. According to you, what have you done if lying would have been your only choice to save a life?
As we can see with this example, ethical dilemmas are not easy to solve. Ethics depend on a moral framework. We make decisions based on what we believe is right and what is best for us, but not necessarily for everyone else. In some situations, we decide with our hearts, in other situations with our brains. Being human is part of the dilemma.
- Shakil, (2015) “Kantian Duty Based (Deontological) Ethics”, retrieved on Feb 5th, 2016 from http://sevenpillarsinstitute.org/morality-101/kantian-duty-based-deontological-ethics
- Wikipedia (2016) “Utilitarianism”, retrieved on Feb 5th, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism